Directed by: Wes Anderson/2018
For ZekeFilm’s review of the film by Jim Tudor, click here.
Note: “Reel Theology” is a special section devoted to editorial interpretations of various movies. The readings you may find here might very be unintended on behalf of the filmmaker, and in many cases are subjective to the individual writer’s point of view. You may find yourself not agreeing, but we hope you will find yourself engaged. This article is also meant for those who have seen the film, and thus this is considered a spoiler warning for those who haven’t seen it, as we will be discussing potential details of the film that will be considered spoilers.
While Wes Anderson doesn’t really deal with the issues of God, or faith, and the like (at least not directly), there are many themes that run through his films that find themselves quite at home when located within a theological framework. This is also true for his latest film, the stop motion animated film, Isle of Dogs.
It may be surprising to many how many of these themes have their roots in some of our oldest faith stories. These stories ultimately seek to define what it means to be human, as well as how to fix the common struggles we all share, namely our fall from grace and our need for salvation and redemption. Differing belief systems will of course outline these themes differently, relating it to their core teachings, but there seems to be universal agreement that something is wrong, and that something needs fixed in our world. This has spurred the imagination of artists for centuries, regardless of the medium, and Wes Anderson is someone who has a keen sense of what makes for the perfectly odd individual(s) in need for redemption, in his own unique style. We can see these sorts of individuals, like Dignan and Anthony Adams from his first film, Bottle Rocket, to nearly the entire family of Gene Hackman’s Royal Tennanbaum. For Isle of Dogs, there are even more humans in need of such redemption, but there are also some canines as well.
Part 1: Redemption
The idea of redemption is that someone or something is being saved from error, sin or evil. Wrapped in a love letter to Japanese cinema (cultural appropriation arguments aside), Anderson’s film contains what one could call a great evil or error, depending on whether you are a cat or dog person. It seems that the Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura-a co-writer for the film), is secretly a part of a cat-loving sect that, along with his right-hand man Major Domo (Akira Takayama), have concocted a plan to blame the city’s recent outbreak of dog flu on the canine inhabitants in order to force all canines to the trash island across the water from their city. His eventual plan will also include eliminating the entire dog population, but first things first. He labels the dogs as evil, and for the rest of the film, they are in need of redemption, particularly the dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), who is the guard dog for the mayor’s own ward (a distant nephew named Atari (Koyu Rankin) who was orphaned and taken in by the mayor), and the first dog to be exiled.
While the dog population is in need of redemption from their dire circumstances, so too is the Mayor, whose devotion to cats is causing great harm. Not only is this harm being felt by the dogs themselves, and their former masters, but it is causing the mayor to strike out and inflict harm on anyone who would seek to intervene on the dogs’ behalf, especially Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito).
Part 2: Covenant
A basic definition of covenant is an agreement between 2 parties where promises are made and expected to be kept. Straight away we see that Atari and Spots have made their own pact, whereby Spots agrees to always protect Atari until death separates them, and Atari promises to be a good master. This ritual is repeated later between Atari and Chief when Atari releases Spots from his agreement to take care of his own new family and the community of canines he is responsible for. There are also other examples of covenants being made between the Mayor and his commitment to his ward, Atari, as well as the agreements governing his position as mayor with the constituents he represents. These agreements are the means by which they all operate, with the politician finding the loopholes of course. It is also the means by which the film judges who is in need of redemption or not, based on who has violated their oaths. In the case of the vast population of dogs, they are in need of redemption, not because they violated any agreement, but as a consequence of someone else’s agreement violation, with the dogs receiving the effects. There are also little agreements between the band of dog friends who assist Atari in his search for Spots, namely between Chief (Bryan Cranston), King (Bob Balaban), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).
Part 3: Death, Faith, and Resurrection
This is a theme that can show itself symbolically in a film, or be literal. In Isle of Dogs, Atari is believed to be dead after falling to what is reported to be a watery grave. While people mourn his loss, the Mayor uses this death to redouble his efforts to wipe out the dog population citing Atari’s loss as the latest example of the pox these dogs and diseases are on society.
Yet, there is a minority of people, led by American foreign exchange student and conspiracy theorist Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), who have faith that Atari is alive. They even carry signs declaring that he lives, and use this notion of being thought dead but really being alive to rally the people to their cause. Their cause is exposing the truths that science has come up with a cure to the dog ailments that would allow for the return of their canine companions, but the Mayor is keeping that cure from the public. It isn’t until Atari strides through the door of the town hall where the Mayor is about to issue the order to wipe out the dogs upon confirmation of his re-election that the bulk of the population can even consider the possibility that he is alive. So it is that the faith of Tracy and her small group is realized in Atari’s resurrection, which opens the door to the possibilities that follow.
Part 4: Repentance, Forgiveness and Reconciliation:
Finally, we see that those who were in need of redemption find the opportunity to partake in the restoration they were looking for. Atari finds his dog, rescuing not only Spots, but the entire dog population, gaining a new faithful companion in Chief. Dogs are restored to their owners and reconciled with society at large. The Mayor, coming face to face with the truth of his own misdeeds admits to his wrong, repenting of his mistakes and accepting the consequences of his actions. He finds forgiveness with Atari, who inherits the mayoral position and begins the task of setting things right and helping the city of Megasaki reunite the warring factions of cat and dog lovers everywhere. It is this reconciliation that enables the entire society to move forward and achieve the peaceful existence they were all longing for.
While these themes, and several others, figure prominently in this tale, Isle of Dogs is not meant to be a religious exercise, allegory, fable, parable, or myth. It is simply a funny, entertaining, film with lots of bite. The fact that the film contains themes that often find a more comfortable home in theological, or religious, contexts does not diminish the fact that whether one subscribes to any particular religion or belief system or not, these are themes that continue to resonate with communities around the world. We haven’t even scratched the surface with the layers of depth and meaning found in Isle of Dogs, but hopefully an exercise like this demonstrates how integrated theology truly is in the stories we tell ourselves. That’s also the point of a Reel Theology article, to create a discussion around the theological threads that weave in and out of our cinematic experiences and narratives. This film is being released at a time of year where death, resurrection, forgiveness, redemption, faith, repentance, covenant, and reconciliation figure prominently, and it is therefore appropriate that we would find all of these notions, and more, emerging out of Wes Anderson’s latest film Isle of Dogs, whether he intended these connections or not. All of us can relate to this film, because it is teeming with the stuff that resonates with us all, namely, what it means to be human.
A Closing Haiku
Isle of Dogs is fun, and deep.
Springtime is upon us.